Don't be fooled by the somewhat misleading tag line on the DVD front cover of Granada International and A&E Video's new 2-disc release of the 1978 ITC miniseries production, Disraeli ("Ian McShane stars as the 19th century's most scandalous British Prime Minister"). Despite that line's implication that "sex" will be the prime focus of this 253-minute look at perhaps Britain's most popular prime minister, there is no bodice-ripping in this incredibly detailed look at the politics and loves of Benjamin Disraeli.
Considering the scope of this miniseries biopic, quite a bit of telescoping will be involved in my overview, which is fine because what works on the screen - a slow, and at times, laborious look at the policies and strategies, as well as the various personal and professional relationships, of Benjamin Disraeli - may sound tedious on the page. Beginning with Disraeli's (Ian McShane) return to London from the Middle East in 1832, it's immediately established that Disraeli, despite international success as an author of romantic adventures, is deeply in debt from speculative investing that went terribly wrong (indeed, this debt would follow him throughout his life and provide much of the catalyst for events in Disraeli). Famed among the London elite for his risqué literary work, as well as for avoiding invitations to social functions, Disraeli, with the encouragement of influential friends such as politician Edward Bulwer (Brett Usher), Lady Blessington (Margaret Whiting), and Count D'Orsay (Leigh Lawson), proceeds to charm the London elite, before pursuing a life-long dream: to enter politics by running for Parliament.
Unsuccessful in his multiple runs for Parliament, the penniless Disraeli soon learns he needs patronage and a guiding mentor to crack the barrier into English politics that awaits anyone born a Jew (Disraeli, born a Jew, was baptized however, into the Anglican church). With some of his election debts paid by his wealthy father Isaac D'Israeli (Aubrey Morris), Benjamin finds entrance into the Tory Party through Lord Lyndhurst (Mark Dignam), who offers Disraeli the chance to be his private secretary - an offer prompted by Disraeli's lover, Henrietta Sykes (Madelena Nedeva) - who, unbeknownst to Benjamin, is also Lyndhurst's lover. After a public challenge of his political beliefs (as well as a personal insult to his Jewish heritage), a challenge that Disraeli meets with an offer of a duel for the disparager, Disraeli gains respect from influential party leaders, as well as with Mary Ann Lewis (Mary Peach) and her successful Member of Parliament husband, Wyndham Lewis (William Russell). Asked to piggyback with Wyndham at the next election - with all costs paid by Lewis - Disraeli is finally elected to Parliament, setting in motion over four decades of service to the Crown and England.
Quickly learning the complicated ropes of Parliament, the Tory's perpetual minority status taxes Disraeli's efforts to shape policy, but more pressing concerns - primarily money - weigh heavier on his shoulders. When Mary Ann is widowed, Benjamin presses her for marriage, to which she reluctantly agrees (she's at least 12 years older than her suitor). But what starts off as a marriage of convenience (in reality, Mary Ann had little money, none of which would go to Benjamin when she died) soon becomes an ideal marriage between two devoted soul mates. In the course of Disraeli's Parliamentary career, he clashes memorably with the fanatical Gladstone (John Carlisle), while becoming remarkably close with Queen Victoria (Rosemary Leach), who comes to depend on Disraeli not only for his political acumen, but also for a deep, abiding personal friendship. Soon, Disraeli achieves his ultimate goal: the first Jewish Prime Minister of England.
Produced in 1978 for English TV, and presented here in the States in 1980 for PBS' Masterpiece Theatre (under the elongated title: Disraeli: Portrait of a Romantic, which appears on the title cards of this DVD transfer), Disraeli is not going to be everyone's cup of tea - even for those who love these kinds of
British TV productions. A copious amount of detail into the policies and strategies of 19th century England are introduced, much of which might be a tad confusing to the general audience. I know I was frequently stopping the film, and Googling certain names and terms that, while familiar to me, needed further explanation to get the context of what the filmmakers were trying to say.
As well, Disraeli's filmic style (if it can be called that) is resolutely mid-seventies English TV, which means the vast majority of it is shot on inferior videotape (with just a few location shots on 16mm), with the overwhelming emphasis on "talking heads" drama. Actors enter a set, deliver their lines, and exit. There isn't a lot of visual variety (mostly close-ups and medium shots), and the pacing can be glacial, particularly when the film focuses on politics, rather than on Disraeli's personal life. Those looking for the sumptuous location work and elaborate production design of later British TV offerings that wound up on PBS, will no doubt be disappointed in the look and feel of Disraeli
That being said, Disraeli is marvelous - if you're in the mood for a lot of talk, but talk delicately nuanced by terrific performances and a willingness to be thorough and deliberate in character development. Written by David Butler and directed by Claude Whatham, Disraeli provides a unique balance of intelligent dissection of 19th century English politics, along with a surprisingly touching, tender love story between Disraeli and Mary Ann Lewis. I might not be able to give someone a good accounting of the various permutations and undulations of American politics in the 19th century, let alone England's, but after watching Disraeli, I feel pretty confident of that latter exercise (with some help from the internet while I was watching, as I noted before). Historians and amateur history buffs will no doubt enjoy Disraeli because it actually takes the time to dramatize political events, both large and small, that would be unceremoniously cut out of most overtly "political" biopics. Some viewers may have a low threshold for this sort of thing, particularly when the terms (Tories, Radicals, Liberals) may be unfamiliar or mean something different today than they did over a hundred years ago, but political junkies will be surprised at how much detail is crammed into Disraeli.
Equally impressive is the dramatization of the poignant love story between "Dizzy" (as he was incongruously called by his close friends) and Mary Ann Lewis. One of the noticeable benefits of these "talky" British miniseries is that there's time to fully explore their characters. And indeed, we the viewers get several hours to watch Dizzy and Mary Ann's love grow from respectful friends to uneasy bride and groom, to savvy helpmates (Mary was evidently, despite her outward flighty demeanor, quite astute in politics) to cherished soul mates. At the beginning of Disraeli, one expects the film to focus primarily on the subject alone, which the film does admirably. The portrait of Disraeli that the filmmakers provide is one of an intensely ambitious, proud man who, although he was a practicing member of the Church of England, was equally proud of Jewish racial heritage. Anti-Semitism was prevalent in England at this time, and Disraeli's background was often used against him when convenient for his opponents. A self-made man (he didn't attend college), Disraeli, in the eyes of screenwriter David Butler, is a self-actuating man, an author who tires of writing about great events because he wants to act in them. As one character describes him, Dizzy was "part genius, part dandy (in an effort to cover his awkwardness at the intolerance and prejudice he suffered, do to his racial heritage), and part actor."
But very quickly, Disraeli then moves into charting the course of his love affair with Mary Ann, and her character is given quite a bit of screen time, as well, establishing her as a relative "free spirit" (for 19th century England) who often spoke her own mind in a charmingly direct and unaffected manner which the more staid, proper English elite found enchanting (even the grim Queen Victoria is shown laughing when Mary Ann, presented with the tidbit that a statue of Apollo is perfect, responds, "Well, you should see my Dizzy in the bath!"). It's this attention to balancing the portrayals of both Disraeli and Mary Ann (and not slighting in the script her considerable influence on his life) that's quite refreshing here in Disraeli; this is one of the few times where the old adage of "behind every great man there's a woman" is actually dramatized with sufficient respect and depth to the woman, making her an equal in every way in her union to Dizzy.
Of course, the most subtle, carefully constructed screenplay in the world wouldn't work on screen if the performances themselves were wanting, but fortunately, McShane and Peach are quite remarkable here. I must say that although Peach looked familiar to me from other projects (I remember her from a Roger Moore Saint episode), I couldn't quite place them. But she's effective here, walking a tough line between conveying Mary Ann's almost giddy demeanor (and therefore, her doubted intellect to a society that viewed women as inferiors in matters of thought), and her intuitive political acumen. As for McShane, when has he ever been bad? He's rather like Michael Caine or Gene Hackman in that way; regardless of the merit of the particular project he's in (and McShane has made some groaners), he always manages to come up with something interesting to do. Here, he has to age some fifty years, and he's quite good physically at conveying that. But more importantly, his trademark intensity is perfectly suited to the initially rebellious, but ever-increasingly cagey and savvy career politician Disraeli. It's a significant performance in his long, distinguished career, one that might surprise regular fans of his that might not expect such a measured, contemplative turn.
The full-screen, 1.33:1 video transfer for Disraeli is pretty much what you'd expect from something shot in England on video from the 1970s. Ghosting, video noise, color bleeding, burn-out, flaring, and a generally soft picture (particularly for anything in the background) are all characteristics that fans of these types of films have already become accustomed to on DVD, so it shouldn't be a surprise by now. Keep it on a small monitor.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 stereo mix is, I would imagine, a remix from the mono, which doesn't help when mushy dialogue gets buried under the more bombastic moments of the film's music track. No subtitles or close-captions doesn't help here, either.
The only skimpy extra here is a brief, bland text bio on McShane. Not worth your time.
A wealth of political detail is combined with a surprisingly moving, affectionate romance, making Disraeli quite satisfying for both history buffs and more traditional Masterpiece Theatre viewers. The film never talks down to its viewers, expecting them to follow along with the strategies and policies of 19th century England, while also giving them an adept, touching look at Disraeli and his beloved wife, Mary Ann. The visual design of the film may be stodgy, but the performances are superlative. I highly recommend Disraeli.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.